In his book, Marriage in Men’s Lives, the late sociologist Steven Nock found that after men marry and become fathers (in that order), they work longer hours, they earn more money, they spend less time in bars, and they spend more time in church, compared to similar peers who did not marry and have children.
Likewise, after noting that young men who are not married with children are more likely to fall prey to criminal activity and drug use, the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof concluded that “men settle down when they get married: if they fail to get married they fail to settle down.”
The work of Nock, Akerlof, and countless other social scientists suggests that marriage and fatherhood (in that order) play a crucial role in civilizing men. From their perspective, the institutions of marriage and fatherhood rely on a multiplicity of rituals, norms, and roles to steer men in positive directions.
But now we have compelling evidence that it is not simply the rituals, norms, and roles of marriage and fatherhood that foster responsibility on the part of men. Biology also appears to play a role.
A new study featured in the New York Times indicates that men who become fathers experience a drop in their testosterone and that this testosterone drop is especially marked among men who are involved fathers.
So, here we have evidence that marriage and fatherhood have a biological impact on men’s physiology that, in turn, may help account for the behavioral shifts that mark men after they become family men.
But why mention marriage here? What does marriage have to do with the study featured in today’s Times? Doesn’t an engaged style of fatherhood affect men regardless of marital status?
But we also know that men are much less likely to maintain an active, day-in-day-out role in the lives of their children if they are not married to the mothers of their children. In the United States, fathers who are cohabiting at their child’s birth are more than twice as likely to break up with the mother of their children, compared to fathers who are married at their child’s birth. And even in Sweden, where cohabitation has an unparalleled level of cultural and legal support from the society at large, fathers who are cohabiting at their child’s birth are 75 percent more likely to break up with the mother of their children, compared to fathers who are married at their child’s birth.
So the biological power of fatherhood seems most likely to stick with men who get and stay married to the mother of their children.– W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.